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Afghanistan: Hearts and Minds Campaign

Volume 697: debated on Thursday 13 December 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What progress they are making with their hearts and minds campaign among the people of Afghanistan.

My Lords, if Afghanistan is to see the peace, security and prosperity that its people desire, it is vital that they understand and support the aims of their democratically elected Government. It is equally key that there is broad support for international efforts. Recent polls show the majority of Afghans continue to feel that their country is headed in the right direction. Support remains high for the presence of international forces, with national approval ratings of between 60 per cent and 67 per cent in recent polls.

My Lords, that is an encouraging Answer. We heard in the Statement yesterday that the international community is redoubling its efforts towards national security and front-line services. But what about individual security and the rule of law? What about access to justice and conditions in the courts and in prisons? Has the Minister seen Amnesty’s report on the ISAF detainees who are being handed over to the Afghan authorities and need protection from ill treatment, torture and the general conditions in those prisons?

My Lords, the noble Earl draws attention to an extraordinarily important point. There will never be confidence in the new democratic Government of Afghanistan if they are not able to bring justice to their people. The Afghan Government, with the support of the international community, are developing a national justice sector strategy, which sets out their priorities for the period 2008-13. There is a significant amount of international support for this strategy. Pledges were made of some $360 million, of which the UK committed $4 million, at a rule of law conference. This is well understood as a key priority in the hearts and minds campaign to which the noble Earl’s Question refers.

My Lords, do the Government accept that paying people money to change sides from the Taliban in the conflict, or to stop growing opium, may win minds briefly but will not win hearts, and if it works at all, will work only very temporarily?

My Lords, the Government are interested in the issue of whether they can provide economic support for growing those alternative crops to people currently growing opium. They are also interested in more aggressively disrupting the infrastructure of the drug trade. But there is no suggestion that the Government are paying money as some direct compensation to make people switch sides.

My Lords, Ministers regularly refer to alternative crops when the subject of opium growing in Afghanistan is raised, but I have never yet heard which crops.

My Lords, there is a variety. Let me just say that work is currently being done by DfID, with the World Bank, to identify specific crops that are not only viable in terms of the agricultural conditions, but for which a market exists internationally at a level which will make growing them profitable. Beyond crops, a number of Afghans point out that Helmand is also rich in marble and that marble mining is a major economic possibility.

My Lords, we are dealing with hearts and minds in Afghanistan. We have to face the problem that the stretch of the Afghan state has not extended over the whole of Afghanistan for a very long time, if ever, and that a number of regional lords are deeply engaged in the drugs trade and corruption. How can the international community help the Afghan Government to extend more effective and less corrupt administration across the country?

My Lords, first, the Afghan Government must help themselves by much more aggressively singling out and attacking with all the legal means at their disposal those prominently associated with the drugs trade, who are also thought by the people of Afghanistan to have links to the Government themselves, a matter raised in the House yesterday. Secondly, through ISAF’s activities in targeting and attacking laboratories as well as through financial means, we can seek to identify and sanction the leaders of this trade and bring them to justice.

My Lords, the noble Lord prayed in aid poll figures of Afghan support for their Government’s present activities. Has he seen the recent map published by the NGOs showing how much less of Afghanistan is now safe for them to travel? Can he explain how this polling is done and say which parts of Afghanistan it is done in?

My Lords, there were two major recent polls, one by the BBC and the other by the Environics Research Group. Both have polled over several years in Afghanistan and show very high findings that 67 per cent of Afghans support the presence of international forces and that 75 per cent thought that it was a very good thing that the Taliban had been brought down by foreign forces in 2001, and so on. However, I very much agree with the noble Lord that polling should be treated with some caution in the case of Afghanistan; Afghans have also indicated in answering polls that they are reluctant to criticise the Government. But it is a nationwide poll. In that sense a lot more of the country is accessible than was the case in the NGO poll of the Senlis Council, to which I think the noble Lord refers and which we do not accept.

My Lords, the Minister talked about crops, crops and more crops but what my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale asked for was the name of the crops.

My Lords, a number of crops have been looked at, from basic foodstuffs to more complicated and higher value added crops. As the World Bank will report on this to us next week, I do not want to pre-empt it.

No, my Lords; we have not seen it. I shall be happy to put in the Library the World Bank’s recommendations on which crops it tells us next week are most viable.

My Lords, is the Minister aware of any specific initiatives to win the hearts and minds of Afghani women? What specific initiatives are there to tackle the ever-increasing problem of self-immolation—women setting themselves alight because of the severely frustrating circumstances in which they find themselves despite our invasion?

My Lords, the condition of women in Afghanistan, as the noble Baroness knows, has markedly improved under this Government. There is much more opportunity to participate; Afghanistan has one of the highest numbers of women MPs in the world; and a lot of girls are in school. However, there are the remaining and difficult social issues to which she refers, and we continue to press the Afghan Government to address them.